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Suketu Mehta: As an immigrant, I lay claim to land wherever I go

Rihan Najib | Updated on August 30, 2019 Published on August 30, 2019

Swing factor: Suketu Mehta believes that the 2020 US presidential elections will hinge on how Americans feel about immigrants   -  REUTERS

Suketu Mehta discusses his new book ‘This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto’ and makes a forceful case for viewing immigration as a policy of reparations

Coney Island in New York is a good place to start a conversation about immigration in the US. In a 2015 lecture on what makes cities flourish, author Suketu Mehta brings up Coney Island’s “everyday carnival”, a place where all the races on Earth congregate. For Mehta, a dedicated observer of urban life, Coney Island works not because of purposive inclusion, rather due to the fact “that no-one is excluded”. “It’s not that you’ll get invited to every party on the beach. It’s that somewhere on the beach, there’s a party you can go to,” he says.

Over the phone from London, Mehta (56) tells BLink, “Whether cities or countries, much of my work is making a case of heterogeneity against homogeneity”. He gives the case of a typical restaurant in New York: “The cook might be French, the dishwasher might be Salvadorean, the waitress might be Russian, the usher may be Pakistani”. There is a visible and entrenched hierarchy in the nationalities working at the restaurant. “But this hierarchy only works because the Salvadorean, who is a dishwasher, believes his daughter will someday own a restaurant,” he says.

This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto; Suketu Mehta; Penguin Random House; Non-fiction; ₹599

 

On his way to the Edinburgh International Book Fest, Mehta is on a tight schedule, flying out to Vienna shortly after to promote his new book, This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. His last work of non-fiction, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2012), was a kaleidoscopic snapshot of contemporary Mumbai, combining the flourishes of a seasoned features reporter with the forensic zeal of an anthropologist.

“I worked day and night on This Land since I had to bring it out right now in response to the present worldwide emergency — and certainly before the upcoming American presidential election. I couldn’t afford to take seven years to write this book as I had done with Maximum City,” he says, explaining the urgency underpinning his latest offering. This Land is not a text, it is a stance, a moral position. The ‘manifesto’ in the subtitle is meant to signal to the reader that the book is “a strongly argued polemic”. “I am making an argument, which is born out of rage, that as an immigrant, I lay claim to land wherever I go,” Mehta says, referencing American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s 1944 song This Land is Our Land, which also lends the book its title.

In 1977, a 14-year-old Mehta left Mumbai along with his family for the US. The book opens with Mehta’s recollections of the racist abuse he faced as a teenager and how it shaped his understanding of belonging. The narrative switches to the ongoing immigration debate in the US, a hot-button topic given that the Trump administration is separating parents from children and barricading them in detention centres. Mehta digs his heels in, refuting the narrative of immigrants as a predatory presence on host countries. Instead, he echoes his grandfather — who, when asked by an Englishman why he was in London, replied, “Because we are the creditors”.

“We are here because you were there,” says Mehta. Describing immigration as a “rigged game”, he makes the case for immigration as reparations for centuries of colonial plunder and organised maldevelopment. “Richer countries stole the future of poorer countries, which are then further weakened by inequality and climate change,” he says. “In a way, this was the easiest book I have written because it was animated by this guiding principle. In a sense, it kind of wrote itself.”

Suketu Mehta   -  Penguin Random House

 

Mehta, who teaches journalism at New York University, crossed various embattled borders across the world for researching the book. With sharp and lucid effect, he brings alive the tragedy of desperate families that have invested everything they have in the shaky prospect of their children leading better, safer lives. Friendship Park, located along the US-Mexico border, offers a painfully vivid picture of this desperation, where a thick mesh separates the country they want to exit and the one they want to be their new home. Families on either side of the border are allowed to interact briefly by touching fingertips through the mesh, an act described as “the pinkie kiss”.

For his views on immigration, Mehta has come under fire from several right-wing quarters such as American far-right columnist Anne Coulter. But he wants his book to be part of the ongoing conversation on immigration in the US, as also India, where an anti-migrant policy known as the National Register of Citizens in Assam threatens the citizenship status of over 40 lakh people.

“The 2020 elections are going to be fought on the basis of how Americans feel about immigrants. But we — Americans — caused this whole mess,” he says, referring to decades of American interference in Latin American politics and economies. “Immigration as reparations is not a mainstream view but neither was opposition to slavery. We have to begin the debate somewhere and this is where it starts,” he concludes.

Published on August 30, 2019
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